December 3, 2022

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Ocean eats homes and railroads: Californians are experiencing climate change up close

The sea eats houses and railroad tracks
Californians are experiencing climate change firsthand

A parking lot is already torn up, many buildings are uninhabitable and railroad tracks are partially undermined: In San Clemente, California, the effects of climate change have arrived and the coast is eroding. “I could cry,” said one resident.

Along one of the world’s most beautiful railroad tracks, along the California coast, locals can watch the Pacific Ocean wash over beaches, homes, and even railroad tracks. This is visible evidence of erosion caused by climate change.

Not too long ago, the tourist railroad along the Southern California coast was separated from the ocean by wide beaches. But the heavy flood washed away the sand. High tides are now tilting the rails, carrying more than eight million passengers each year, the “Pacific Serpentine”.

Without a beach, the railroad between San Diego and San Luis Obispo was not protected from Tropical Storm Cay when it swept ashore in September. Parts of the tracks were washed away, forcing the track to be closed for emergency repair work.

Steve Long “could cry,” he says. The 68-year-old San Clemente resident regularly crosses the railing on his way to surf: “Every day I come here and see the misery,” he says.

In San Clemente’s Cypress Beach luxury development, where former President Richard Nixon lived for a long time, other residents are also uneasy. Without the beach as a buffer, the slope on which the Cypriot coast is built is slowly eroded by the sea and the houses slide down. The parking lot on the cliff has already collapsed, and the two villas with cracked walls are uninhabitable. “Each house is worth at least ten million dollars,” Long says.

More than 2000 km affected

The slow infiltration of water isn’t just a problem for San Clemente, says Deputy Mayor Chris Duncan. “The entire California coast is threatened by climate change and erosion.” That is 2000 kilometers. Erosion is a natural phenomenon, but scientists say it will be accelerated by global warming, and sea levels will rise as a result of more intense storms and the melting of ice sheets and glaciers.

By 2050, $8 billion to $10 billion worth of roads and railroads will be under water in California. According to a 2019 study by the California State Legislature, six to ten billion dollars worth of additional infrastructure and buildings could be in the flood hazard zone.

In San Clemente, the local transit agency is currently trying to stabilize the route bed. Tons of rock are being dumped every day to strengthen the dam — a $12 million project expected to take more than six weeks.

“Don’t Just Give Up”

“A losing battle,” according to Deputy Mayor Duncan: In September 2021, a failed attempt was made to protect the tracks with 18,000 tons of rock, he says. “Although the slope is temporarily stabilized, large amounts of sand are still lost,” as waves bounce off hard rocks and carry the sand with them. Instead, he wants to use federal funds to replenish beaches.

Some advocate a more radical solution to save the railroad. “The best thing would be to move them off the coast,” says geologist Joseph Street, “but of course it’s a lot of work, very expensive.” And the homes behind the rails were in an unsafe condition.

“Many of our city planners and decision-makers have put off the problem for too long,” criticizes Stephanie Sekich-Quinn of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental advocacy group. He also recommends changing the railway line. In California, however, there are only a few such initiatives. In San Diego, for example, a $300 million plan to move the rail line further inland, a hundred kilometers south, was awarded there in July.

In San Clemente, that would be a last resort, Duncan says. “People want elected officials like me to work to save our homes and our railroads — don’t give up.”

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